Lemons into Limoncello

warning: a very personal post

amalfi lemon peel

When I was 21 years old, I had just gotten my bartending certificate and only had a few months of experience with alcohol. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was trying to be crafty and artisanal; I sliced some grocery store lemons into perfectly equal, beautiful rounds, tucked them into a glass bottle, filled said bottle with middle-shelf vodka, and let it sit in my apartment until it looked a cloudy vague yellow color and smelled lemony when I sniffed it.

I’ll never forget how proud I was to bring that glass bottle to my best friend’s apartment for a party. I was finding myself as a mixologist and figuring out my relationship to drinking. Some guys poured shots of my ‘homemade lemon vodka’ and passed them around, and one got into the hands of the guy I was super into at the time. I’ll never forget the feeling when my world shattered as he downed it and his face contorted in disgust. “Eew!” he exclaimed. It was sour, bitter, and not at all pleasant. It would have been better if it had been straight crappy vodka.

This guy ended up being a fuck boy who treated me like shit, so in hindsight, I’m glad my first attempt lemon vodka poison assaulted his senses.

Four years later, I was a very different person and I tried commercially-made limoncello for the first time. I’m talking about the affordable artificially yellow limoncello you find at liquor stores. My boyfriend and I had stuck it in the freezer all day, and that night we drank shots, talked about our exes, and slow-danced like dweebs in the living room. I started to get the most incredible hangover while drinking. My palate constricts as I think about the sugary, syrupy liqueur that made my upper lip sticky and was somehow pleasant and terrible at the same time.

One year ago, I had just finished the last test of my first year of business school, and my classmate Maggie, a 38 year old JD from Texas, had brought an ice cold bottle of homemade limoncello to class to celebrate. We were giddy to be drinking alcohol in a school building (all of us fully grown-ass adults). Maggie poured from her frosty unlabeled glass bottle into tiny paper cups and passed them around––the situation was a little surreal in how informal it was. It was fresh, a little tart, not too sweet, and brilliantly cold. Maybe the occasion made the liqueur more delicious, but it’s a good memory.

Limoncello Jar

One week ago, my friend gave me some Amalfi Coast lemons, and they were these huge, fragrant, bright canary yellow specimens. I did some quick research online about the best way to make limoncello…and I still fucked up. I didn’t get enough of the pith off, so I spent a good amount of time taking a potato Y-peeler to each piece of peel. By the end, my hands were sticky and tacky from lemon oils, but I had a beautiful jar of lemon peels, steeping in grain alcohol.

I’ve been having a rough time lately; I’ve lost motivation to be in school, I’m burnt out from work, I feel lonely all the time, feeling taken for granted and undervalued in one-sided relationships, and unfortunate things have been happening in my personal life that cause me continuous sadness. But as I stood, barefoot in my kitchen, all of my attention was focused on scraping those peels and not accidentally nicking my own fingers. In that moment, I didn’t feel the crushing fog. I could find some peace (‘happiness’ would be stretching it too far), at least for a little bit, in trying something new and making something beautiful.

I am a really different person than I was seven years ago, when I first tried to infuse lemon slices in cheap vodka. My limoncello may turn out to be garbage, but that won’t devastate me. Jaclyn is coming to the West Coast in a month, just in time for the limoncello to steep then age for a nice time in my freezer. During my rough time, I’ve tried to find these little moments, like peeling lemons for limoncello, to keep me going.

Thanks for listening.

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